Commodore Perry & the ‘Unequal Treaties’

Commodore Perry & the ‘Unequal Treaties’

The Commodore meets the Shogunate /

The Commodore meets the Shogunate /

Matthew Galbraith Perry was born into the American ruling class in 1794. He entered the Navy in his teens and was soon a naval officer. It was as a Commodore (a rank with meaning in the American navy, not so in the Royal Navy) that Perry entered Tokyo Bay fifty-nine years later in July 1853, in command of four fighting ships, two under sail and two powered by the new steam engines. Japan had been closed to foreign conact for more than two hundred years because the Tokugawa Shogunate feared foreign trading would allow rebellious warlords to become rich, allowing them to buy foreign arms. Commodore Perry’s brief from his president had clarified that the US wanted to extend and expand her trade in the Far East, especially coal supplies from Japan for US ships trading with China.

Perry was allowed onshore where he presented a letter from the American President (Pierce) demanding a renewal of diplomatic relations with Japan, allowing American ships to be provisioned in Japanese ports. Perry got a quick negative from the Tokugawa authorities, who asked for time to think, and the Commodore allowed them a year. While Perry waited, the shogunate congress took an unusual step – they asked the warlords (daimyo) for their opinion! They were all still thinking when the Commodore returned to Tokyo, this time with nine ships of war. The congress decided the time to make a treaty had come, especially as the guns of all nine ships were pointed at the centre of Tokyo and all the port installations. In 1894 the rather old-fashioned Japanese had not yet learned about something called ‘gunboat diplomacy’, a US speciality.

The Japanese provided two ports where American ships could dock, and therefore buy necessities such as coal, water and food supplies. Private trading, according to the shogunate, was not permitted, but an American consul was allowed to set up office at Shimoda. Britain and Russia wanted to get in on this startling change of mind but had to wait until 1858 for the ‘Unequal Treaties’ (see below) which would provide full commercial relations, and ‘extraterritorial’ status for foreigners, meaning in effect full diplomatic status while in foreign lands.

Commodore Perry’s visits had tremendous consequences in Japan; the Tokugawas showed that they hadn’t the strength to resist foreign demands, especially when they might be backed by the overwhelming force of three great navies led by the United States. The ‘Unequal Treaties’ started a train of events which led to the inevitable downfall of the Shogunate.

The Unequal Treaties’

These treaties were actually imposed on China by force until the end of the 19th century, and were called ‘unequal’ because they granted privileges to other powers thus infringing Chinese sovereignty. It all started with the Treaty of Nanjing, opening five ports to foreign trade; another eleven were added by the Treaties of Tianjin and Beijing (Pekin). By 1900 fifty such ports were open in China to foreign trade. The Opium Wars (q.v.) were part and parcel of the unequal treaties’ effect on China.

Foreigners in China could be tried, if they erred, by their own consuls in the ports, according to their own countries’ laws, in both civil and criminal cases. The Chinese, however, did not have the same rights abroad, hence the ‘inequality’. The treaty ports became a symbol of a kind of super-colonialization by the great powers, but they did have the positive effect of China’s having to start modernizing and reform. However, it is a fact that China did not recover control of her own tariffs until the late 1920s, and was unable to eliminate the unequal treaties completely until 1943.

The western powers enforced unequal treaties on Japan too, but Japan responded vigorously to the threat by learning Western-style diplomacy (carrots and sticks), mastering technology, and finally removing the dubious practice of ‘extraterritoriality’ by 1899. But then, as Japan’s strength and powers increased, she behaved towards Korea exactly as if she were a great Western power, imposing unequal treaties first on Korea and later on China herself after the successful Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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